Internet Intellectuals

by Henry on September 10, 2013

I have a new article (Web version, PDF) on technology intellectuals in the current issue of _Democracy._

Three addenda. First, the piece finishes by offering some (much deserved) praise to Tom Slee. It’s probably worth making clear that he has _absolutely no responsibility_ for anything I say in the article (I’m tolerably frank in my opinions about a few people – he likely disagrees with some of these criticisms). Neither he nor anyone else mentioned in the article has seen it before publication. Second, that there’s at least one major omission in the piece. I mention both Susan Crawford and Siva Vaidhyanathan as technology intellectuals who are skeptical about the positive role of business – I can’t think why I didn’t include Rebecca MacKinnon (whose excellent book, _Consent of the Networked_, takes this as a major theme) too. And I’m sure there are others. Finally, the piece may very possibly get some lively reaction, which I am unlikely to respond to at any length. When I describe myself as an amateur of these debates, I’m speaking the literal truth – my actual livelihood, which involves classes to be prepared, academic research to be finished up and sent off to journals, and comprehensive exams to be put together, is keeping me extremely busy at the moment. So take it as it stands …



ben w 09.10.13 at 2:06 am

This strikes me as an odd note:

“These various new-model public intellectuals jostle together in a very different world from the old. They aren’t trying to get review-essays published in Dissent or Commentary. Instead, they want to give TED talks that go viral.”

Is that really true of the balance of people publishing in the venues mentioned three paragraphs above—LARB, The New Inquiry, Jacobin, The Baffler, and … Dissent? Or is it that while the aspiring intellectuals publishing in such venues are new, they aren’t new-model—only the technology intellectuals are new-model, and it’s they who’d rather give TED talks?


John Quiggin 09.10.13 at 3:09 am

Following up on Ben W, it strikes me that “TED talk” has become a codeword for “digital era bloviation”, at least among the kind of people I pay attention to. I don’t know exactly when this happened but
(1) It wasn’t true two years ago
(2) I don’t think there was any particular critique that had a big impact


Henry 09.10.13 at 4:05 am

ben – there’s a transition there that could be spelled out better. There is a general commentary about how the Internet is allowing a new set of publications to come into being, as well as allowing some old ones to revitalize themselves. This is about public intellectualism in general. Then the switch comes to focusing on technology intellectuals in particular, who have some particular features that many other public intellectuals do not. Hope that clarifies.


Kevin Erickson 09.10.13 at 5:14 am

Henry, this is a really fine piece that helpfully lays out the troubled landscape. I’m especially glad you flagged the way Wu and others view government intervention. (One of my colleagues noted recently that the “defend the internet” paradigm of writing and activism tends to operate from a rhetorical position of defense of lost privilege–which is never a good look, especially for a demographic in need of more diversity.)

Despite his tendency toward caricature, one thing that Mozorov gets right is that abstractions like “the internet” structure our thinking in ways that cause us to accept what would otherwise be seen as overly broad and blunt narratives about technological progress that are quasi-theological rather than empirical. And this dovetails with the problem you identify of the narrowness of the discourse. Diverse communities are not asked for their insight unless they confirm assumptions.

I see this manifested in the way leading technology intellectuals are given free reign to opine about things that extend beyond their area of expertise—for example, the tendency to defer to Larry Lessig on topics that he doesn’t seem to really know much about. I’m thinking of Lessig’s popular TED talk where he bemoans “the kids” having to worry about their Youtube covers being taken down and their speech chilled or remixing “criminalized”. But has Lessig ever spent any time immersed in youth music subcultures? Has he talked to participants in local music scenes offline beyond his self-selecting Creative Commons associates? Does he understand how independent cultural production happens at the community scale in a non-theoretical sense? If he did, he’d know that the biggest challenges facing youth music communities are invariably physical space (real estate), and (relatedly) finding funding/sustainable financial models. Young people trying to participate in music culture are “criminalized” by curfew laws, cabaret ordinances, arbitrarily enforced noise, fire, and zoning regulations etc. Fear of YouTube cover songs or remixes being taken down wouldn’t rank among the top 100 problems they face. (That’s empirical, BTW, we actually surveyed “the kids”!)

But since TED hasn’t sent youth music organizers an invitation to come speak at their event, Lessig is able to appropriate our cause (and the associated feelings of goodwill that arise when one thinks about extending youth access to music culture) and use it to reinforce his preferred overarching narrative.

Just an example from the issue set that is closest to my heart; I’m sure there are others.


Kenny Easwaran 09.10.13 at 5:31 am

I thought this Evgeny Morozov piece, and one other that came out around that same time, crystallized something that a lot of people were starting to feel:

I still think that TED talks are on balance a good thing, in that they get a wider spectrum of the public to realize that there could be an academic talk that says something interesting and relevant. And there are particular TED talks I recommend to people, just to educate them about the existence of things like bioluminescent communication, or the aquatic ape hypothesis. But I also generally accept the critique.


adam.smith 09.10.13 at 5:47 am

I think what I found odd about Henry’s piece is that the first couple of pages read _exactly_ like Morozov. It’s all there – shitting on Jeff Jarvis & TED, the critique of tech-solutionism etc. And then he turns around and bashes Morozov – but doesn’t address much address Morozov’s actual arguments, just the fact that he misrepresents some folks (I’ll assume the Jarvis will feel misrepresented by Henry, too ;)).
I believe I agree on much of the basic argument, but reading still left me uncomfortable and I think that’s connected to the treatment of Morozov – much of the critique of people relies on me trusting Henry’s judgment. Henry declares books “good” or “bad” or as having potential and the only way we know that’s the case is because he says so. I don’t find that convincing.


Brett 09.10.13 at 5:48 am

TED talks tend to be alright when they’re focused on a particular bit of technology or some unusual projects, and not about something more nebulous like business and/or politics.


Dan Nexon 09.10.13 at 5:55 am

Part of the problem with TED is that specialists recognize the overhyping of problematic arguments. This isn’t a universal feature of the talks, but one that has grown (at least to me) increasingly grating. There’s also a sense in which TED seems part of the same culture that leads University boards to fire presidents for not ’embracing the cutting edge’ and confronting the ‘creative destruction’ wrought by technology. Because all of higher education should be like those TED talks, but with profit!

Anyway, magnificent piece, Henry. That’s the way that public intellectuals ought to roll….


Harald K 09.10.13 at 7:01 am

“They are more ideologically constrained than either their predecessors or the general population. There are few radical left-wingers, and fewer conservatives. Very many of them sit somewhere on the spectrum between hard libertarianism and moderate liberalism.”

Well, that’s maybe because you define out the hardcore libertarians and communists from being real, respectable public intellectuals? In a sense I have no problem with that (although I’ve read interesting articles on both wsws and lewrockwell), but I think you ought to be clear what’s description and what’s definition of this group you write about.


Harald K 09.10.13 at 7:21 am

OK, having now read it all I have a better sense of which group you mean, and I can agree there are few real radicals in it. Sorry I brought it up.


bill benzon 09.10.13 at 8:45 am

On TED, it’s useful to mention that in the past few years (3, 4, 5?) it’s been franchised so that now there are TEDx talks all over the place, but they aren’t run out of “TED central.” Rather, they’re local operations run under TED branding. In fact, if you go to the TED site you’ll find there are various types of local TEDs.

And then TED central has proliferated as well. There’s the main ancient and honorable TED out in California in early Spring, but then there are other slightly lesser TEDs at other places at other times of the year.


Alex 09.10.13 at 9:49 am

The franchised TEDs (TEDx something) overtook my ability to satirise – I was planning a blog post proposing a TEDx Shoreditch, for Nathan Barley laughs, and a TEDx Bradford, but then I found out that both of them had actually occurred. I should probably throw a TEDx Harrowell.


The Raven 09.10.13 at 4:45 pm

Quibbles from the pedantic Raven: Jaron Lanier, too, no? Perhaps on the good side. “…an instinctive genius…” If that’s an accurate summation of Morozov’s writing process, it probably would be better to say “intuitive,” but I don’t think you know the man well enough to say.

As to the broader issues: I don’t think this is a new problem. The history of thought is rife with such groups of authors. “Internet anarchism,” to give it a name, has consistently failed to produce egalitarian results, and the bent of these people to support means that it produces both the false hope and powerlessness. Because governance in any form is “bad,” there is nothing, nothing to be done about the problems of…lack of governance. It extends outside the internet. It seems to me that the crypto-anarchist call for a global financial system which cannot be regulated has been answered at the high levels of the global financial system, and 99.99% of us are the poorer for it. At the same time, the new knowledge of economics and sociology tells us clearly that governance is what produces best results on the human level: that is one way to look at Keynes, as well as systems theorists like Forrester.

What is to be done?


Bruce 09.10.13 at 11:48 pm

I enjoyed the piece, and think you hit on some important issues, but I’m curious as to how representative you think Jarvis, Keen and Morozov really are. All three of them are pretty buffoonish (I’d throw Lanier in there as well), and it’s hard to see them as really movement leaders, but that may come from my disdain for them.


Steven Johnson 09.11.13 at 12:48 am

Henry, really enjoyed the piece, and appreciate the kind words about my work, and the constructive criticism. I agree completely with your emphasis on the wealth inequality question, which I tried to address in that one chapter in Future Perfect and in my exchange with George Packer, but there’s obviously much more to be said about it. I’m curious about the James Galbraith argument, and would like to know more: it seems to me that options have created more inequality only because they are not more widespread, and that more participatory corporate compensation structures (like those in Silicon Valley) should be emulated more widely…

But my main disagreement has to do with the “drab uniformity” of the tech intellectuals. The one thing you don’t really mention is the emphasis on commons or peer-based production that runs through the work of many of the people you mention: certainly in my books, and Lessig’s, Shirky’s, Zittrain’s, not to mention Aaron Swartz and Yochai Benkler, and so on. I think you’d agree with me that, in mainstream US political discussion, collectively created property without traditional ownership relationships has almost no place whatsoever. It doesn’t even register as a recognizable category. And yet it is a central animating idea for many of the people you talk about.

Now, you can argue I suppose where that idea fits on the political spectrum — I think it belongs on the far left, in the BoingBoing socialism side of the spectrum, as you once called it. And of course you could argue that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be: that peer production works well for making software and encyclopedias, but not much else. Those are all legitimate debates. But even the critics would have to acknowledge that there’s nothing “drab” and “uniform” about that commons-based orientation; if anything it’s too weird and hard to place for mainstream discussion…


Nick Carr 09.11.13 at 2:08 am

“Most technology intellectuals agree on most things.”

That may have been true ten years ago; I’m not sure it’s true anymore.

I think you’re right that there are certain new material conditions that have influenced recent public debates about technology (ie, in this case, computers and computer-related stuff), but I think you could also make a case that, for at least a hundred years, there’s been a cyclical ebb and flow to the debates, from a dominant enthusiasm to a dominant skepticism and back again, and that this pattern has continued through the Internet era.


Nick Carr 09.11.13 at 2:39 am

The parenthetical “ie” in that comment refers to “technology” not to “new material conditions,” by the way. The new material conditions are the ones you describe in the article.


John Quiggin 09.11.13 at 4:13 am

In some ways, the technology intellectuals are more genuinely public than their predecessors. The little magazines were just that, little. They were written for an elite and well-educated readership that could be measured in the tens of thousands. By contrast, TED talks are viewed 7.5 million times every month by a global audience of people who are mostly well-educated but are not self-conscious members of a cultural elite in the way that the modal reader of Partisan Review might have been.

It might be more helpful to do the comparison with the blogs and magazines mentioned a bit earlier in the article, which are at much the same level as the little magazines (higher in some respects, because of the ease of linking to evidence etc). Their collective readership might not be in the millions, but it would certainly be in the hundreds of thousands, and much less of a self-conscious elite than that of the little magazines. And, the total quantity of material available is massively greater, to the extent that it’s really impossible to keep up with all of it.

So, even if the new era doesn’t live up to some of the more utopian expectations, it’s still an huge improvement in nearly all relevant dimensions.


Luke Fernandez 09.11.13 at 6:06 am

Now that Evgeny Morozov is enrolled in grad school I wonder whether that indicates that he harbors some of the same doubts that you have about the quality of his work. And if I was one of the many authors he has trashed I’d probably be pretty sympathetic to the portrait you draw of him in your review: Perhaps he does unfairly skew the arguments of his opponents. Still, I wonder if all of that might be forgiven in the context of an essay that is inspired by Russell Jacoby’s laments about the decline of public intellectuals. Jacoby might have written his work in the 80’s but I doubt things have changed much in academe, or specifically in political science, since its publication. My bet is that the APSA and its associated journals are still producing desiccating works that are unreadable by anybody but the most dedicated wonks. Which is too bad because politics, and the politics of technology, should hardly be the province of political science alone. It may currently take the agonism (and imprecisions) of Morozov to spark a public conversation about power and how power is redistributed by technology. But that’s a better outcome than relegating those debates to professionals inside academe.


Phil 09.11.13 at 9:33 am

One of the first things Tom Slee put up on his site was a systematic dismantling of the whole idea of the Long Tail; I was about two posts into my own planned systematic dismantling of the, etc, when I discovered it. So I was a bit disappointed to read this:

most of these aspiring pundits are doing their best to scramble up the slope of the statistical distribution, jostling with one another as they fight to ascend, terrified they will slip and fall backwards into the abyss. The long tail is swarmed by multitudes, who have a tiny audience and still tinier chances of real financial reward.

The long tail is not a distribution. It’s basically a bar graph, with the bars ranked in descending order. If you think about it, the ‘head’ of a right-skewed distribution isn’t something to scramble up or jostle to get into – it’s where most of the points are. If you’re trying to sell more than most, you’re trying to get further down the slope.

In actual fact, if you take one of these things that look a bit like a power law (if you represent them as a bar graph with bars ranked in descending order) and actually graph the distribution – use the X axis for the number of hits/links/sales/etc and the Y axis for the count of sites/books/etc with that number of, etc – you do get a strongly right-skewed picture: a big ‘head’ consisting of bazillions of books selling nothing or sites getting a couple of hits, then a right tail, then a lot of single, isolated points, way out on the right and almost too small to see (just one site getting 520,000 hits, just one book selling 11,000,000 copies).

The Long Tail for me is borderline chartjunk – it uses the X and Y axes to convey what’s essentially the same information (Y axis: this book sold a million! X axis: it sold more than that other book that sold half a million!) But it has the great merit, commercially, of focusing attention on the big sellers and the big winners, not on the statistically normal condition of the rest of us.


zeynep 09.11.13 at 12:09 pm

One may quibble with some specifics, but I believe that the dynamics Henry outlines are why there are so few women or non-white tech-intellectuals on the “scene”. It’s much harder and rarer for that group to either aggressively self-promote or to troll (well, you could try but you’d get overwhelmed by the sexual harassment that would happen in response, to begin with and both behaviors would make you “unattractive” in that world).

Also, I think Henry is missing the NYT op-ed page/traditional media side of the equation which is the “anti-TED TED” for the critics–anything seen as “critical” is promoted aggressively. I lost count of the number of op-eds and columns in the New York Times that are in the category of “internet bashing” but are not really critical takes in the sense they are not grounded in reality or empirics (i.e. they are bashing, not criticizing the way things actually are or could be and are often at odds with research on the topic).

And all that, in turn, is related to the superficiality of the discussion, for example, around privacy, group norms, free speech versus freedom of assembly, surveillance etc. in the tech community. The limits of that discussion seem to range from “if you don’t have anything to hide, don’t post it” to “if you don’t like the platform, don’t use it” to “it’s all awful and wasn’t it great before and why do we need it anyway” without recognizing the layers of privilege in both positions.

This is not a coincidence because, as Henry explains, the “rah rah” thinkers in this world come from a category of people who are used to benefiting greatly from publicity and unfettered access to tools of self-promotion without facing the challenges–especially women, but any community of lesser privilege faces when negotiating publicity with, well, keeping your head down or not being too aggressive–the safe option.

On the other hand, the “bash it all” critics tend to be the type of people who can opt out of some of the worst platforms without paying the penalty as mainstreams publications love the “critical take” even if that critical take is coming from people who have rarely used these tools, nor do they really need to due to their privilege. Morozov and Turkle, among others, are in in that category–though their critiques are very different, both suffer greatly from their disconnect to the lived reality on how these tools are used in actual practice of large numbers of people. Many of these critics, loved by traditional high-profile press, tend to be “opt-outers” in general (EM doesn’t use Facebook and Turkle doesn’t really use or self-promote through social media because she doesn’t need to–traditional media promotes both of them relentlessly.) In the end, they both write extensively about tools and platforms they don’t really use and it shows in the critique. This all would be okay as one can write about things one does not use, and surely there is space for that. The problem, however, is this occurs in a scene bereft of people who write about these tools critically, but are grounded in their reality, and approach it from the point-of-view of recognizing “opt out” is an option with a huge penalty for those with less privilege. That perspective, sorely needed, is largely missing from the tech/talk/NYT op-ed pages scene.

The other side of the coin–the “rah rah” crowd–can’t get beyond “love it or leave it and hey, look, I love it.”

The result is the “rah rah” crowd have TED, and traditional media will take the “bash it all” folks and promote them. The former won’t take people who are not good at aggressive self-promotion and the latter wants articles that just damn it all, specifics be damned along with it all.

Hence, there is little space for the critical, and even radical, takes that Harrell says are missing–and they are missing. The result is a poor, shallow discussion of a very important issue–the infrastructure of our future commons. Sparks fly but there is little fire at the core.


Henry 09.11.13 at 2:55 pm

Steve – thanks for the comments and the pushback. Briefly, I think that the commons based model has legs. But I also think that the current debate submerges some stark differences about how commons based production should relate to existing systems of political and economic power.

One approach (I) is to see them as more or less compatible – commons based production becomes e.g. a useful source of innovation for existing businesss models. This idea crops up a lot in the business literature – e.g. Von Hippel and Bhide. The rejoinders to this are the obvious ones – that it becomes a form of digital sharecropping or what have you.

The second (II) is to see commons based production as something quite different from standard economic models, but also something that is inherently self-sustaining and (one hopes) likely to spread of its own accord. This is the matter at stake in the Benkler-Carr bet. And while I think that Yochai won that on points, I also think it is fair to say that peer production hasn’t taken off as much as he would have hoped. A common variant of this position argues that not only is commons based production self-sustaining, but it is likely to be more egalitarian.

The third (III) is to see both commons based production and distributed decision making (which is related but quite different, and the stuff I focus on) as holding enormous promise – but only in a society where other political economic institutions are reformed quite radically to alleviate power disparities, and to prevent collective efforts from being cannibalized. Here, the argument isn’t that commons production is necessarily more egalitarian – but rather that it is most likely to work well in egalitarian conditions.

These have different implications, and lead todifferent politics. E.g., I think that Tom Slee’s criticisms of the people who believe in (I) are most devastating – they apply with some degree of force to people who believe in (II), but I wouldn’t be surprised if Slee was prepared to give (III) a chance. If I get you right, you are somewhere between (III) and (II). On the one hand, you see peer production as a far left program of reform. On the other, you are hopeful that the economic model of Silicon Valley can inherently alleviate problems of inequality without further political intervention. I obviously agree with the first bit, but probably disagree with the second. At the least, I would want to see evidence not only that Silicon Valley firms are internally more willing to spread the money around, but that the broader economic model (including stuff that is outsourced) in the broader community, and in other communities directly affected, is also egalitarian.

Nick – I’d be interested to hear what you think are the major fissures of disagreement between technology intellectuals, and how they work against my thesis.

Phil – wouldn’t be the first time I got things wrong (I know just enough stats to get myself into trouble and no more, but in the literature that I know, it’s pretty standard to talk about e.g. power law and lognormal distributions as long tailed, and to represent the long tail as per my metaphor. Doesn’t seem to me to be necessarily chartjunk at all – there can be very useful and relevant information in the relationship between rank and frequency.


Henry 09.11.13 at 3:00 pm

Zeynep – the media conditions of the NYT etc are another, and interesting question, but tough to deal with in the same essay (in one very early draft, I tried, but decided that it was just too different a set of problems to shoehorn in). All this said, of course the world of traditional op-ederry is not very much more diverse (if it is more diverse at all) than tech-punditry. Nor, indeed, left intellectualism – Chris Bertram was complaining on Twitter about the LRB’s track record on women writers just the other day.


zeynep 09.11.13 at 3:48 pm

Henry – I understand you can’t fit it all but I’m just saying it’s part of the picture. Many women can’t/won’t get into either the negative-attention cycle or the self-promotion business but the alternate route, traditional media, only likes one kind of criticism: bashing.

On LRB: they published Žižek on “global protests” in which he made statements about Turkey/Gezi that were, well, blindingly factually false at the most basic level. My jaw dropped but that’s the way it works. It’s a winner-takes-all model, it seems, once famous, you can do no wrong and will get published and published and paid attention whereas women and other newer constituencies who tend not to win at the attention economy on their terms (you can win à la Miley Cyrus in being roundly condemned but getting attention out of it) don’t have that many good strategic choices.


Phil 09.11.13 at 4:42 pm

Odd. I’m getting a ‘duplicate comment’ message but no sign of the comment I’m supposed to have posted. Is it in there somewhere?


Nick Carr 09.11.13 at 6:58 pm

“I’d be interested to hear what you think are the major fissures of disagreement between technology intellectuals, and how they work against my thesis.”

Even limiting myself to the people you mention, I think there are substantive disagreements about the social, economic, political, personal, and intellectual effects of computers/net/digital media. If you add in a few others whose recent works have spawned public discussions – say, Sherry Turkle, Jaron Lanier, and Peter Thiel (a fairly diverse group in itself) – the fissures deepen.

I don’t think that undercuts your argument that material conditions have shaped the debate, which is an important and illuminating argument, but I do think that some of the blanket statements you make about the alleged homogeneity of viewpoints aren’t accurate. For instance, you write, “Technology intellectuals like to think that a powerful technology sector can enhance personal freedom and constrain the excesses of government.” I don’t think this is a uniform belief among the people you mention. I know I don’t believe it, and I’m guessing neither Morozov nor Vaidhyanathan believes it. You write, “In a better world, technology intellectuals might think more seriously about the relationship between technological change and economic inequality.” There’s always room for more serious thought, particularly on this matter, but if you look at, say, the chapter “From the Many to the Few” in my book The Big Switch or at Lanier’s new book or even at Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur, you find serious discussions about the links between tech, jobs, and income inequality. Morozov has also addressed the issue. You may bristle at, say, Lanier’s tech-centric “solution” to the problem, but he takes the problem seriously.

You write (and I sense this may be your main practical complaint) that there “are few real left-wingers among technology intellectuals.” That’s true, but, at least in the US, there are few real left-wingers among any set of public intellectuals. The absence has more to do, in other words, with the generally homogeneous state of intellectual and political debate in the country than with the particular material conditions influencing technological debates. In the end, for better or worse, it’s the public that grants the status of public intellectual.

As I said, I agree that there are particular material conditions that have shaped recent public discussions about technology. I think there are other forces influencing the discussions, too – including genuine intellectual curiosity. So I’m not convinced that the material conditions are quite as deterministic as you say. As for TED: this too shall pass.


Tim Worstall 09.11.13 at 9:25 pm


“They claim that the Internet has changed the meaning of the long tail. People
who don’t like the things that everyone else likes don’t have to pay attention to
those things anymore. The Internet has made it much easier for them to find
the things they do want to pay attention to, and build a community with oth-
ers who share their tastes. If you prefer klezmer bands covering Deep Purple
to Katy Perry, you will have a much easier time finding those bands and fellow
fans today than you would have two decades ago.”

This is entirely true but wasn’t what Anderson was first talking about. He was talking about the effect of the new technology on the profitability of distributing the klezmer band version of Deep Purple, not the ease of the consumer finding it. I do recall this as I read the book properly, as I should have done, given that I was hired to review it.

Please note, I don’t doubt that what you say is true, it’s just that it’s not the original Anderson long tail argument. Which was about production and distribution, not consumption.

“most of these aspiring pundits are doing their best to scramble up the slope of the statistical distribution, jostling with one another as they fight to ascend, terrified they will slip and fall backwards into the abyss. The long tail is swarmed by multitudes, who have a tiny audience and still tinier chances of real financial reward. ”

That’s very Sir Pterry about Gods. Only an observation mind.

Henry on Jarvis strikes me as spot on.

As to the mentions of Lanier. As far as I understand it his argument is that we’ll only keep the middle class jobs as long as we keep the rent seeking credetionalitis that maintains the exclusivity of the middle class jobs.

At which point he fails to see the point that we’d rather like to get rid of the rent seeking so that everyone can consume these goods and services without paying the rents. But that’s obviously tangential to this post.


Tom Slee 09.12.13 at 3:05 am

This is entirely true but wasn’t what Anderson was first talking about. He was talking about the effect of the new technology on the profitability of distributing the klezmer band version of Deep Purple, not the ease of the consumer finding it.

Anderson had three “rules of the long tail” in his original essay and the third is explicitly about recommender systems and making it easier for consumers to find things, so I raise your “Eh?” with an “Um”.

Obviously the best part of Henry’s essay is the much-appreciated final few paragraphs, but highlighting the reluctance to talk about government intervention is another much-needed point. danah boyd blogged about regulating Facebook three years ago but my impression was that the post stood out as unusual at the time and continues to be. Perhaps as time goes on the technical nature of the technology debates will be less to the fore, and ideas from the rest of the world will make inroads. It would be nice to think so.

One development that Henry didn’t touch on is the unfortunate way that some of the populist writings have shaped academic work. I’ve always had a lot of time for Gladwell because he is up front about the source of the ideas he is popularizing (although – aside – I was just listening to Eleanor Wachtel interviewing Richard Sennett and when she said that Gladwell “popularized” the idea of 10,000 hours to master a subject, he corrected her with “stole”). But although the Long Tail – to stick with that – was a half-baked idea based on flimsy foundations, it reached a large enough audience that business school academics went searching to see whether there was any evidence to back it up, publishing their results in peer-reviewed journals. Academic researchers became, in effect, research assistants for Anderson, which added credibility to the idea that it was a theory rather than a hypothesis as well as wasting some smart people’s efforts when they could have been doing something useful.

zeynep’s comments emphasize how much the arena is one of drama, performance and story-telling, ideally in 18 minutes. The successful have something of the lead singer to them and in that environment it’s similarly difficult for women to get respect for the quality of their work. A possible ray of hope is an increasing sociological and anthropological component to the debates over technology’s impact, so let’s hope that there will be a critical mass of women to follow Turkle, Biella Coleman, and Tufekci out from those disciplines into public debate. Not that I have anything against political scientists or labour-movement historians.


John Quiggin 09.12.13 at 5:18 am


It’s a winner-takes-all model, it seems, once famous, you can do no wrong and will get published and published and paid attention whereas women and other newer constituencies who tend not to win at the attention economy on their terms

Certainly true, but arguably less so in the Internet than in the older mass media. Hard to think of any old media pundit who’s lost any kind of ground by being consistently wrong. OTOH, people like Mickey Kaus , who were big Internet names 10 years ago, seem to have faded or disappeared altogether, at least partly due to consistent wrongness.


Phil 09.12.13 at 8:00 am

I’m having a hell of a time re-posting my lost comment 25. Your duplicate detection is good.


Phil 09.12.13 at 8:01 am

Sorry, just checking I could post at all on this thread. Here’s what I was saying earlier.

Henry – Not sure I get “the relationship between rank and frequency”. If you can see that column 3 is shorter than column 2 but taller than column 4, what extra information do you get from seeing that it’s between columns 2 and 4?


Phil 09.12.13 at 8:04 am

The next bit is getting kicked out, possibly because it has Teh Links. I’ll try it without.

It’s true that power law distributions are long-tailed, but “the Long Tail” isn’t a distribution – it’s simply a list arranged in descending order, a ranked graph. Some ranked lists do have ‘power law’ properties (Zipf’s law), but “the Long Tail” isn’t a Zipfian series either (leaving aside the question of whether its shape conforms to the power law anyway – which people like Cosma Shalizi, who know vastly more maths than me, have been sceptical about).


Phil 09.12.13 at 8:05 am

Thank the Lord for that. Last bit, and Teh Links:

I really don’t want to bang on about this endlessly [hah!]. The way that the Long Tail image caught on (and the idea that it’s some sort of alternative to the normal curve) just bugs me, when you think how little information it conveys and how easy it would be to throw together something more information-dense – just by computing a distribution rather than by arranging numbers in descending order.


Phil 09.12.13 at 8:22 am

I’ve munged the links to the nth degree and they’re still not getting through. Something there is that does not like a link to a mid-2005 discussion of Zipf’s law. If anyone’s interested, go to my blog and use the search box for “Long Tail” – it’ll all be there (including links). I do want to link to this post before I go, if I can.


Steven Johnson 09.12.13 at 1:36 pm

Henry, I like your breakdown of the different models of peer production very much. (That should be your next essay!) But I would clarify one thing in your interpretation of my position on all this:

On the one hand, you see peer production as a far left program of reform. On the other, you are hopeful that the economic model of Silicon Valley can inherently alleviate problems of inequality without further political intervention.

I’m actually all for political interventions in spreading the participatory or even employee-owned model. In my imaginary utopia, all corporations would be structured this way: you’d have a marketplace, and competition between corporations, but the corps themselves would be bottom-up in structure, with decisions about compensation and broad strategy made by the entire organization. (That’s why I had that little riff about employee-owned companies in Future Perfect.) But given the difficulty in getting to that model, I think it would be great for the state intervene to encourage more equitable compensation practices: ie, big tax penalties if your wage ratios exceed 20:1, etc. In fact, I don’t understand why the Democrats don’t embrace this position, since it also has the advantage of combatting the stereotype of Big Government sucking money out of the private sector: instead of indirectly redistributing wealth, the state is just encouraging direct redistribution inside the private corporation. (Of course, other forms of indirect redistribution would continue…)


Steven Johnson 09.12.13 at 1:42 pm

I should say that of course I do understand why the Democrats don’t embrace this position, since their bills are increasingly paid by the beneficiaries of wealth inequality in this country… But as an argument directed to voters, I think it would be very persuasive…


Henry 09.14.13 at 1:01 pm

Steve – thanks for the clarification (and sorry for taking so long to return to this thread – have gotten caught up in good arguments about the ways in which the piece doesn’t properly deal with gender and diversity on teh Twitter).

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